Q&A with Dr. James Giordano, Chair, IEEE Brain Neuroethics Subcommittee

Q&A with James Giordano

Dr. James Giordano was the former chair of the IEEE Brain Neuroethics Subcommittee. Fostering interaction across and beyond IEEE, IEEE Brain spurs cross-disciplinary collaboration and coordination to advance research, standardization and development of technologies in neuroscience to help improve the human condition. Dr. Giordano is a professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University, and is chief of the Neuroethics Studies Program at the university’s Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics. He is also senior researcher and task leader for the European Union Human Brain Project’s Philosophy and Ethics Sub-Project.

You have written about how neuroethics “bespeaks a new worldview.”1 Could you please elaborate on that point a bit?
James Giordano: It is a question I get asked quite frequently in a variety of fora—not only academically, but certainly in the public venue, as well.

We have always used the knowledge we have, and the tools we have to gain both knowledge and capacity. The idea of engaging any science—irrespective of whether it is brain science or earth science or geographical science, etc.—is to be able to obtain knowledge that in some way becomes usable in human enterprises directed at or for other humans, or directed elsewhere in our ecology. What we seek with the tools we have is new knowledge, and then that knowledge gives rise to ever more sophisticated and capable tools.

It’s been a mere 40 or so years since neuroscience really came into its own as an eponymous field, with broad recognition of the term and meaning of “neuroscience.” In these past four decades, neuroscience has increasingly become a concatenation of forces—the life and natural sciences coming together with engineering, with the social sciences, and with the humanities, all with the focus and scope of studying the structure and functions of the brain.

As well, this growing momentum of brain science has prompted a tendency toward something of a neuro-centric worldview, reflected, in part by questions such as: How is it that brains embodied in particular organisms do certain things and respond to certain things? What does the meaning of neuroscientific information portend for concepts of the self? How can we modify our brains—not only in terms of repairing damage and ameliorating disease, but also, as we have always done, to advance our survivability and flourishing?

In many ways, this evidences a kind of epistemic crisis—literally, a change in what we know and how we know it. This search for and acquisition of knowledge is not only about the brain as an objective set of facts, but is also about what those facts and things imply for the ways we regard and treat each and every organism that has a brain. In short, neuroscience brings together a host of disciplines toward a new, deepening and ever more precise focus on what it means to have a brain and be a mind that is embodied and embedded in one’s ecology.

Why do you see IEEE Brain as a good investment of your time and effort and an effective way to further your work?
James Giordano: I think that there is an ethical obligation to engage science toward reexamining the human condition. My hope would be that we do this in a logical way and achieve a rational accounting of the tools and knowledge that we have, who’s using such tools and what are the intents and effects of their use.

The IEEE Brain Initiative focuses on the neuroethical and social aspects of the brain sciences writ large. By this, I mean not as simply confined to the medical milieu, but as brain sciences spill from the medical silo, and move from bench to bedside and beyond. Clearly, there is a present and ongoing need for responsible address of the research being done and how research, in terms of its knowledge and capability, are being used.

I believe that scientific research necessitates understanding of two underlying realities: first is the importance of the research and the need to do the research in an ethically sound way; and, second, the need to steward the knowledge and capability that research affords in ways that are responsible. Science is a public good, but it is not the only public good—it competes with other public goods. And, of course, we must bear in mind that what is thought to be “good” can be defined in exceedingly varied ways, based upon factors including philosophies, cultures, politics, economics, etc. For the scientist—and for those who guide and govern science—understanding the power of science is a contingent professional obligation. The scope of the IEEE Brain Initiative aligns directly with such obligation, and hence its strong appeal to me.

How will you know that your activity in IEEE Brain and leadership of the subcommittee was successful?
James Giordano: Developing realistic metrics for the capability of the work to be extensible and applicable in use will be very important. A task such as this should not simply be a group of people sitting around a table trying to reach some consensus, and then being satisfied enough to pat ourselves on the back, and merely stop at that point. Rather, the idea and plan is to approach this in a way that is going to create a body of work, a set of ethical guidelines, that is—and will be—highly usable beyond the scope of our meeting tables.

IEEE is an international organization and is multidisciplinary in its focus, scope and constituency. So the task that our committee must undertake, developing ethical guidelines to address and direct research and use of existing and emerging neurotechnologies, is multifold in that it must be useful for, and serve these multi-disciplinary audiences. In light of this, it’s essential that we approach neuroscience and neurotechnology in ways that are comprehensible, viable and valuable to those who will use the guidelines. Second, our work must obtain and provide both a broad view and, at the same time, deep and granular address of the science, technology and ethical issues, challenges and opportunities at hand. And, it will need to provide usable guidelines or at least suggestions for approaches, to inform ways that brain science and its technologies can—and arguably should—be ethically employed in a range of uses across a variety of cultures. To that latter point, one of the things that is exceedingly important to us—by intent and by direction—is to ensure that this is not an exclusively Western document. Brain science is becoming a global effort, in ways that are simultaneously cooperative and in some ways competitive, and our work must be sensitive and responsive to this reality.

And given the pace of neuroscientific developments, our work should be a living document. It must be an entity that can be taken in its entirety and/or can be excerpted in part, to afford explicit utility in informing and guiding a variety of research, commercial, clinical and public applications of neuroscience and neurotechnology. We want the document to have as much flexibility as possible so as to be adaptive and incorporated into international use.

In this light, I would see uptake and utility as key metrics. How often is the document being downloaded and used? How is the document serving as a stepping stone for the development of other documents that perhaps could be more specific in their cultural or contextual particularities? Such questions will be useful as we assess the product of our effort, and our needs to addend the work so as to meet circumstances and contingencies that arise in the future. And while this project represents a two-year effort, we see it as a rung—albeit hopefully an important and meaningful one—on an ever-extending ladder of neurotechnological developments and neuroethical address. To such ends, we view our work as part of a considerably larger work in progress, and one to which we are proud to contribute.


  1. http://www.neurobioethics.com/neuroethics-overview-of-the-field/